Adam Curtis has become the most exciting documentary filmmaker of our time. He’s at once a psychologist, a historian, a journalist, a wizard of images, and a fearlessly incisive cultural detective who delves beneath the hidden myths of the modern world. The Power of Nightmares, which he wrote, produced, and narrated for the BBC, is his epic dissection of the war on terror, and, like his earlier The Century of the Self, it’s a fluid cinematic essay, rooted in painstakingly assembled evidence, that heightens and cleanses your perceptions.
Curtis’ audacious thesis is that the American neoconservatives and the Islamic fundamentalists are, in their dark way, the last idealists of politics, and that they rose, in tandem, as apocalyptic mirror images of each other: ideologues rooted in the absolutism of fantasy. Curtis does his homework. He shows, for instance, how the neocons deliberately fabricated evidence of the Soviet threat (an astonishing clip of Donald Rumsfeld in the ’70s, talking about undetectable weapon systems that never existed, will look eerily familiar), and that their philosophical godfather, the legendary academic Leo Strauss, endorsed the use of such fictions as a basic organizing tool of a civilized society.
At the same time, the movie traces radical Islam back to an Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb, who was shaped in the late 1940s by a paranoid disgust at what he took to be the inbred selfishness of America’s liberal society. The Power of Nightmares presents a fascinating dissection of the evolution of Islamic fundamentalism, as it peers inside the mind of Qutb’s fanatic inheritor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Curtis’ boldest assertion is that 9/11 was an act of desperation, and that for all the deadliness of terrorism, the concept of an ominous organization called al-Qaeda — the term was invented by American prosecutors as an analogue to the Mafia, so that Osama bin Laden could be tried in the U.S. in absentia — has been greatly exaggerated. Could this possibly be true? What I promise is that if you see The Power of Nightmares, you will think about it, talk about it, and argue with it for days.